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An upcoming arc I have planned requires a thirteen-hour time limit to escape from an area. How do I plan for that in game time, and how do I keep the players aware of the time? I usually run six hour sessions. Should I just give them a single session to escape?

The specific example I am running is the House of Dust and Ash scenario from Dark Heresy. This includes several hour marks where the location changes and new enemies appear. At zero hour the entire place is enveloped in a volcanic eruption.

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Put a giant clock in the arena and make it "ding" every fifteen minutes and "dong" the number of hours. –  MirroredFate Oct 31 '13 at 23:56
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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Tracking time assiduously used to be a normal part of RPGs in the 70s and 80s, but it seems to have become a lost skill.

The answer is to actually track the time as it passes in-game. Know how long actions take, and estimate other things in blocks of time. The players have a discussion about strategy? 10 minutes. They travel overland? Mark how many hours that takes. They spend time in a place of business? Well, how long does that usually take in your own life?

To make players aware of the passing time, tell them. "Okay, so ten minutes have passed while you argue about where to go next. Are you decided yet?" then let them keep discussing or not, as they like.

If you don't want to give away the exact "zero hour", then that's all you need do: just keep telling them how much time their actions take. The sudden awareness of time that you are making part of the game will create a sense of time pressure all by itself.

However, if you want to hint that something happens after 13 hours, make a paper clock or straight timeline, marked from 0 to 13, maybe with 1/2 hour increments or whatever is convenient for your own time-keeping, and optionally with an ominous icon above the 13 that makes it clear this is an end and not just the point where you start over with a fresh time sheet. Put this where it's visible to the players, and move a marker or shade in used-up time as you announce time passing, without explaining what this mysterious clock is for. They'll see that they're inching closer to the end, and that will seem ominous.

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+1, yeah, I'm like "what do you mean, it's after 13 hours of them doing stuff in game has elapsed. That can take 30 seconds or 3 game sessions, depending." –  mxyzplk Oct 31 '13 at 0:35
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That last paragraph alone is gold. –  Cypher Oct 31 '13 at 0:38
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Use it for drama without strictly tracking it

Personally, I see things like that as book keeping, which is painful and boring. I would reference it repeatedly for the sake of drama. I would also use it to limit activities that obviously take a long time (No, this isn't the time to go crafting something or even resting and recovering). I would not try to track it strictly and as long as they didn't abuse that fact I would make it a piece of background drama rather than something with a rules type impact.

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Good point. Make it less like a science experiment and more like a movie where they're tring to defuse a bomb. They keep showing the timer and the last minute seems to take much longer than any other minute. Of course players could take advantage of that if you let them. But maybe that's OK. –  E L Nov 2 '13 at 15:24
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I have used a number of methods for time keeping in the past. The most important thing is to announce the flow of time to the party.

Most suitable to your case is to use a deck of cards. 13 x 4 = 52. So use a standard 52 card deck. Draw 1 card after every 15 minutes of action. When the deck runs dry, the volcano erupts. They'll see the deck counting down like an hourglass.

To add tension, make one suit represent random encounters. Number cards are minor encounters, face cards are major encounters, and aces are mini-bosses.

Things that might take 15 minutes:

  • Combat, plus 5 minutes rest, plus looting bodies.
  • Setting up camp.
  • Dinner.
  • Discussion or negotiation.
  • Research.
  • Scouting and observing enemy party.
  • Walking a significant distance.
  • Healing party members by non-magical means.
  • Hiding while danger passes.

Another idea, make another suit represent things happening away from the party. I'll let you decide whether to tell the party that one of the suits is making their future harder, increasing tension more so. Knowing the enemy is preparing as well, the party has to consider the balance between preparation and action. I'm struggling to think of potential events because when I did this each card represented days. For heroes raiding a secure facility, I used events like the following.

  • The enemy changes their passwords or security systems, negating some of the party's preparations.
  • The enemy gathers reinforcements. (Several cards triggered this.)
  • The enemy learns of the raid and starts evacuating, reducing the spoils of victory. (Several cards, each progressing the evacuation.)
  • The enemy reaches a research milestone, improving their defences. (Several cards again.)
  • An unexpected storm happens to brew on the day of the raid. I had two cards for the storm, if I drew both, it became a hurricane. (Stupid global warming...)
  • The enemy goes to the local police for additional protection, making it harder for the heroes to move in public.
  • One of the party's allies quits for their own safety.
  • One of the party's allies defects to the enemy. (Would happen after this mission anyway if I didn't draw the card.)

Another system I've used was a race rather than a time limit. Four parties, with no connection to each other, were offered rewards for similar artefacts (in this case plutonium fuel.) The parties that delivered earlier would be paid more. My party prepared, then sat around waiting for a shipment to be moved by train. In the mean time, news reports came in about other trains that had been robbed successfully and how the plutonium corporation was improving defences. This made it clear to the party they needed to be proactive or they'd face a much harder challenge and gain less reward.

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The old House of Strahd adventure I've read had been concerned with this too, as the powers of the vampire grew during nights, and had some clear guidelines on that. It set a timeframe for many crucial actions the players were about to take, such as "searching 10ft^2 takes 10 minutes", and as a GM you were to record those and use them to estimate the time.

While your system might not give you such clear guidelines, writing something like that down and simply adding time as the adventure progresses might be a way to go.

As to informing players, simply stating "As you finish the fight, you hear the bell strike noon", "You have arrived, it is about 2 pm according to the sun" should be enough. I suggest writing those down beforehand though, because for me, such subtle hints are easy to forget during a course of adventure.

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Good approach if you really must track time for mechanical effect. Personally, I wouldn't though. –  TimothyAWiseman Oct 30 '13 at 18:28
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Me neither, but then again, I would have qualms about running a strictly timebound adventure in the first place, so this is what I suggest as a lesser evil. Note that giving players a sense of urgency can be done without actually restraining their time. –  kravaros Oct 30 '13 at 18:37
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